By massively promoting distance working, the health crisis has placed all the players in industrial innovation, and in particular their Research and Innovation (R&I) function, in a partly new and uncertain managerial terrain: the hybrid organization, which has the characteristic of systematically combining face-to-face and remote operation. In other words, in the hybrid organization, distance working is no longer a minor reality compared to the norm of face-to-face work. This is a massive change, but it is a continuation of trends already well established in the world of organizations, starting with the digital transformation of work, which Presans has been keeping a close eye on for a long time. After more than nine months of operating in this unprecedented context, organizations are wondering how to improve the remote management of teams, as well as their collective efficiency.
After the focus on resilience, the return of the performance
It must be said that in most Western countries, the response to the health crisis has hardly taken the form of the “Gangnam style” that we mentioned last March. Nevertheless, organizations have quickly adapted to the new situation, on the one hand by demonstrating resilience, a theme addressed in the webinars we have conducted with our industrial innovation ecosystem in 2020 (videos available here). On the other hand, organizations have often made full and massive use of the new collaboration tools made available by the digital transformation. A sudden shift to a hybrid organizational mode of operation, destined to last because of the benefits it brings… but only on condition that leadership style is adapted and new benchmarks are found to foster collective performance. It is no longer just a question of being resilient, but also of optimizing the operating parameters of the hybrid organization.
Back to the original idyll of remote R&I
At first (spring 2020), mass telework has become, where it is possible to use it, suddenly indisputable. Despite concerns about cybersecurity, this choice has become the norm in many organizations because of its immediate pragmatic advantages.
The beginnings of this switchover still had some of the advantages of both the old and the new systems, as the previous face-to-face dynamics continued to carry teams for some time, even at a distance, while at the same time many individuals were discovering working conditions that allowed them to work in a concentrated manner, boosted by the time and energy savings of not having to travel to the workplace.
In addition, new communication and collaboration technologies have long since diminished the importance of residing in close proximity to other researchers and innovators to benefit from their knowledge, although physical proximity still makes it much easier to learn from others. As long as we look only at individual performance, telework is, thanks to digital transformation, just as productive, if not more so, than office work. But once the initial idyll of telework was over, everyone could feel that mass telework deprived individuals of a large number of very important energizing factors. On the managerial side, it was the difference between working at a distance and making decisions from a distance that quickly became a subject… and not only for managers, because decision-making processes also help to determine collective energy.
Admittedly, all this is much less of a concern for freelance workers, who have, on the contrary, been able to discover that their specific work habits are quite well adapted to the new environment. The same is true for teams that were already operating in a distributed manner, particularly in the case of certain startups. But for the R&I teams, once the initial impetus had passed, new problems began to emerge.
Challenges facing the hybrid organization
Telework alters the framework of interactions that give energy to individuals. For good or ill, depending on the context. But this individual point of view is not the only one to be taken into account. We realize this very quickly when we remember that the central interaction is that of decision-making processes. However, if we are not careful, telework leads almost mechanically to slowing down and weighing down decision-making processes that have hitherto been highly presential and informal. The impact on motivation is necessarily negative.
Moreover, in the world of R&I, the progress of communication and collaboration technologies has not eliminated the fact that concentration in the same physical space, laboratory, company or city, performs work that is irreducible to the sum of individual performance. Innovation feeds on serendipity, and spatial concentration naturally provides for this by constantly generating informal encounters. However, distance work, as it is spontaneously set up, tends to completely eliminate informal encounters. I no longer think about something because I see someone because I must always first have a reason to see that someone… and is it rational to multiply distance interactions without a work goal when by default such interactions require prior coordination to take place? Rationalism imperceptibly leads to an erosion of the fabric of interactions, and thus to erosion of problem-solving, rapid decision making, and ideas. Under these conditions, farewell to collective performance.
Hybrid organizations, therefore, face many challenges. How can we ensure that everyone can give their best? How can we ensure that all team members know each other well enough to work well together? How to make sure that people don’t work too hard? Etc.
Conclusion: Hybrid organization, or optimized teleworking
The first question for an R&I organization today is to what extent the dynamics outlined above can affect teams and their leaders. Has the full measure of the new hybrid working conditions been taken? Secondly, if necessary, the R&I organization must formulate a mobilizing vision of its own evolution towards a better operating system.
All this is not without its difficulties. Effective communication and concern for the well-being of workers are important for good management, but does this principle determine, for example, whether it is desirable to involve employees more in decision-making in the context of the health crisis? To meet the challenges of the hybrid organization, it is particularly necessary to develop empathy by adapting to the specificities of remote interactions, which require more explicit communication. Mental health and work-life balance must be taken into account, as well as the quality of the domestic workspace. To facilitate scalable and sustainable network collaboration, good practices must be adopted: mentors, knowledge management, structuring of meetings, etc.
The R&I organization has, in fact, every interest in being accompanied by an industrial innovation specialist such as Presans in its hybrid organization approach.